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US retail sales soar nearly 3 percent

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Paul Sakuma/AP

(Read caption) A customer looked over clothing at a Gap store in Palo Alto, Calif., last month. Clothing stores saw an unexpected sales boost last month, according to a Commerce Department report released Tuesday.

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US retail sales soared 2.7 percent from July to August, boosted in part by an unexpected surge of spending at general merchandise and clothing stores.

More than half of the boost came from the successful "cash for clunkers" program, which temporarily boosted car sales, according to a Commerce Department report released Tuesday. Other factors were higher service-station sales, boosted by a rise in gasoline prices last month, as well as a slight increase in food sales.

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Stripping out all those sectors, sales rose 0.6 percent – the first such gain in six months, calculates Paul Dales, an economist with Capital Economics, in a written analysis. General merchandise stores saw a 1.6 percent rise and clothing and clothing-accessory stores realized a 2.4 percent monthly gain.

Despite these stronger-than-expected numbers, many analysts remain cautious that a real revival of consumer spending is under way.

"These are volatile data, and we would not advise making too much of a single month’s move," writes Joshua Shapiro, an economist at MFR Inc., in an analysis. "September will see a sharp drop in automotive sales, and the gasoline component is unlikely to add much, if anything, to nominal sales."